HARTLAND, MINN. – “Cats are like potato chips,” reads the plaque on the wall of Kimberly Jameson’s kitchen, “you can’t have just one!”
Which, in this southern Minnesota city of 315 residents, is precisely the problem.
Jameson’s love of cats and penchant for feeding and housing so many of them has fueled a bitter dispute with city officials, who have vowed to crack down on her feline fancy by enforcing a city ordinance restricting residents to only two household pets at a time.
Jameson feeds feral cats that roam the town and keeps some, she says, because it helps her battle depression and anxiety. She recently registered 10 cats as emotional support animals, hoping it will keep the city from taking them from her.
“Cats don’t yell at you,” the 53-year-old said. “They don’t pick fights with you. They don’t put articles about you in the newspaper.”
But city officials claim Jameson’s actions create a public health risk — by putting bowls of food all across town, she attracts not only stray cats, but skunks, raccoons, possums and rats, too.
“She’s got a real problem,” said Mayor Debra Flatness. “It’s not in her best interest, it’s not in the town’s best interest, it’s not in the cats’ best interest for her to fill her house with cats.”
The feud has turned nasty in recent months, with Jameson and the city going to court in hopes of resolving an issue that has stirred tensions for nearly two years.
Jameson, who works as a supper club waitress in a nearby town, admits she’s had as many as 20 cats living with her at times, but not the 40 city officials have claimed.
“The people in Hartland have that view of me as the crazy cat lady,” she said. “I consider that a compliment. I am crazy about cats.
“I don’t have a lot of friends. I spent years taking care of my parents and my daughters. I started rescuing cats, and it’s given me a purpose.”
Jameson claims her cats weren’t a problem until Flatness, a retired Albert Lea police detective who vowed to enforce the city’s animal control law, was elected mayor 18 months ago. But Flatness maintains it’s been an issue for a long time, and one “the previous council didn’t deal with.” She said the topic comes up at nearly every City Council meeting.
“There have been countless complaints over the years,” she said. “We’ve tried working with her.”
The issue appeared to be resolved last year when the city and Jameson signed a legal agreement that allowed her to keep 10 cats under certain conditions. Among them: She had to license the cats, fence her yard and stop feeding animals anywhere but on her property.
In the city’s view, the agreement meant Jameson could not replace all the cats as they died, leaving her with no more than the two allowed under the city’s animal control ordinance. In Jameson’s view, the agreement meant she could always have as many as 10 cats.
In January, the city filed a complaint in Freeborn County District Court, asking a judge to revoke the agreement. It alleged that Jameson failed to live up to the terms and accused her of having more than 10 cats, failing to build a fence and continuing to leave food in public places. It asked the judge for an order allowing it to remove all but two of Jameson’s cats. The judge has yet to rule.
Jameson, meanwhile, countered by saying the city refused to give her a fence permit by claiming her proposed fence wouldn’t be cat-proof.
She denied ever having as many as 40 cats and said she has stopped feeding cats beyond her yard, except for several neighboring spots where residents have asked her to continue.
She said there are many households in town with more than two dogs or cats and questioned why the city isn’t enforcing its ordinance in those cases. She also cited a report filed with the court showing that a state-registered humane agent inspected her house last year and delivered a clean bill of health.
“Ms. Jameson does an excellent job in caring for her cats,” the report read. “I have no concerns about the cats, or the living conditions in the house.”
Cats gave her purpose
Even so, Jameson may find it difficult to keep all her cats. While properly trained and certified service animals — guide dogs for the blind, for example — are protected under state and federal laws, no such exemption exists for emotional support animals, said Rebecca Wisch, a staff attorney with the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University.
Online services that purport to register emotional support animals don’t necessarily have legal validity, she said. What’s more, Wisch added, courts have traditionally upheld a city’s power to enforce ordinances for the health, safety and welfare of citizens.
“Animal ordinances like pet limits are one such exercise of police power,” Wisch said. “These are generally upheld when challenged if the city presents a rational goal for the ordinance,” such as reducing pet waste or addressing overcrowding of residences.
While some cat lovers living outside Hartland are encouraging Jameson, Flatness said she thinks more residents support the city’s view.
“It’s the over-the-top animal lovers who are most vocal,” the mayor said. “The silent majority, I believe, are grateful that we’re going ahead with this.”
Flatness acknowledges that Jameson has “the best intentions.” If the judge orders Jameson to give up all but two cats, “I hope all these cat lover friends of hers will help find them good homes,” the mayor said.
If that happens, Jameson said, “the hole I will go into will not be pretty.” She said she struggled as a young adult with an eating disorder and, later, a drug addiction. When she got sober more than a decade ago, cats gave her life a purpose.
“You can’t go through that and not fill it with something,” she said. “And I filled it with something positive.”